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New twin telescopes will help astronomers peer deeper into universe

By Leon LindsayStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1983



Berkeley, Calif.

A pair of new ''eyes'' for gazing deeper into the universe is being constructed here at the University of California's Space Sciences Laboratory. In about 17 months, the Twin Telescope Infrared Interferometer will literally roll out of the lab to begin peering as far as 30,000 light years into space in search of new stars. The novel system will be mounted on truck trailers so that the telescopes can be moved to take advantage of seasonal or rare astronomical conditions.

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Its designer, Charles Townes, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to the invention of the laser and the maser (a radio-frequency ''laser''), describes two basic roles in space exploration for the new instrument.

One, he says, ''is to get very high-angle resolution'' of objects that emit infrared radiation. ''Many of these are objects that are not available in visible light. They're inside or behind dust clouds, so we can't see them, except in the infrared,'' says Dr. Townes. ''The twin telescopes will provide an expanded view, in great detail, of what these objects are like.

''The other kind of mission is very precise measurement of the positions of stars and other objects in space,'' he says. Such measurements should have 10 times the precision of those now made with the best optical telescopes. A practical benefit of this ability will be enhanced accuracy in stellar navigation.

The Townes system, expected to cost $3 million, is being funded by the US Defense Advance Research Projects Agency through the Office of Naval Research.

Townes explained that the recently launched IRAS (Infrared Astronomy Satellite) and his new twin telescopes ''fulfill different functions.'' IRAS has high sensitivity and can see wavelengths of infrared that don't penetrate Earth's atmosphere, he says. ''It can detect very small amounts of infrared radiation, but it does not have high angular resolution or positional measurements.''

Specifically, Townes says, ''we want to look very closely at several interesting infrared objects in the center of the (Milky Way) galaxy. Especially for a black hole, but for anything else that's peculiar there.''

Usually, Townes says, the two telescopes will be placed no more than 3,000 meters apart, although they could be separated by substantially greater distances.

Initially, the system will be used in California, but Townes says it may also be taken to Mauna Kea in Hawaii or the desert of northern Chile - both of which have ''very good seeing conditions'' and have long been utilized by astronomers.

Since the Twin Telescope Infrared Interferometer is transported on highways, its designer had to consider traffic conditions as well as the laws of physics. When loaded on trailers, the telescopes will be slightly less than 13 1/2 feet high - thus capable of negotiating most highway underpasses.